Some Thoughts on Gardening Tools

by Ted Irving March 2004


I purchased my first digging spade at age 14. It had a rectangular head which in digging spades are about 8" by 11". It was made from forged carbon-steel with a T-shaped ash handle, - a delight to use. At age 18, being drafted into the army, I left it with my father who used it regularly until his death. It remained in mint condition, the head regularly wiped with machine oil, the handle with linseed oil. I still use one of similar design, and it is a joy to handle, with a long, sleek, slightly dangerous look.


Forged-steel tools are made from a single billet of steel and hammered into shape while hot. This aligns the iron crystals lengthwise, imparting great strength. Carbon steel also gives the hardness needed to hold a good edge. Forged carbon-steel tools are not to be confused with standard tools stamped from sheet metal. Some are tempered and I have had adequate tempered-steel shovels, but not forks.


For efficient and pleasurable gardening, it is essential to have a forged-steel digging fork. Cheap standard forks are made of weaker material, and their tines bend irrevocably when working stiff soil. I say irrevocably because once a tine becomes misaligned, it keeps on getting worse, its material losing strength as you repeatedly hammer it back into line. If you have such a tool you must surely regret buying it. Throw it away and invest in a decent forged-steel implement.


Digging spades and forks are about 42" long overall. There are also shorter, border forks and spades, about 38" long with smaller, lighter heads which are about 6" by 8" across. I once heard these referred to by a silly man as "women's" tools. For both serious and playful gardeners of either gender, they are invaluable for close work. The border fork is my tool of choice for general weeding and forking-in compost.


Next, there are the shovels the most common tool in Canadian gardens. Their heads are usually about 8" across. Larger heads are available, but do not buy one. It will eventually ruin your back. They are meant for industrial use and take too large a clod. If you have one, put it in the

nearest garage sale and buy a more modest implement. Shovels are best for tackling irregular material, e.g., gravel, stony soil, manure. Mine is forged steel from Spears and Jackson. I also have an old "tempered" steel shovel from Ames (a good firm) which was ok, but after several years it thinned and the point rounded off, weakening penetration. A long-handled (about 50") small (about 6" wide) shovel is very useful for close work where a little extra stretch is needed; not being intended for heavy work, a tempered-steel head is entirely adequate. You must enter into this business of buying tools for the garden with a suspicious mind. I have seen tools labelled with such vague terms as "heat treated". Do not take them seriously.


Tool heads of stainless steel used to be very expensive, but Chinese-made ones are now available. Lee Valley Tools Limited offer a full range at under $40 each. I have never used them but intend to do so. A friend who is very fastidious about garden tools describes them as "very good value".

Stainless steel tools are not as strong as forged steel. Not only do they not rust, soil clings to them less readily.


I like wooden handles best. They are warm to the touch and are less jarring on the wrist than rigid metal handles. For spades and forks my preference is for T-shaped handles. D-shaped handles in wood, metal, or plastic are more common, and again I prefer wood because of its warm feel.


Now, a word about hoes. There are many different types. I find the Dutch hoe most useful. It has a blade about 5" wide inclined at an angle so that it is almost flat to the ground with the handle held at waist level, ideal for beheading weeds and general scuffing. It should be about 5' long overall. I have one with its upper handle bent at the same angle as the blade, so that my hand rests naturally with a straight wrist. I have not seen these in the shops for ages but if you see one, try it out. Mine is an old Spears and Jackson model.


Many tools are coated with a thick pebbled epoxy, which reduces rusting, and, it is claimed, eases passage into the soil. When asked about this, a salesman appealed to aerodynamics, comparing it to the pitted surface of a golf ball that extends its flight through the air. Hmmm? Does the reader

have advice about this? Perhaps the next step is to have Teflon coated tools.

(Reprinted with permission from the Peninsula Garden Club.)